I got the slightest little bit of pushback about my comments about Empire Burlesque on Facebook (ok, it was one comment). In some ways that makes sense, as a lot of my friends are around my age so they too would have experienced that album as among their first Dylan purchases. I want to help those people out.
Throw away Empire Burlesque. Get rid of it. Burn it! Delete it! Ignore it! Shun it! Now, replace it with Outside the Empire*, or one of the many collections of outtakes from the lengthy recording sessions for the album. Empire Burlesque was recorded over a very long period in a number of locations with a number of performers and a number of sounds. It is a sort of cobbled together album that was then overlaid with 1980s synth elements and over-dubs. Go back to the source.
Outside the Empire includes sixteen tracks, six more than Empire Burlesque. It includes a version of every single song on Empire Burlesque except for “Dark Eyes”, which, as I have noted, is the one truly great song on the album (and the only one that isn’t ruined by an awful production job). So when you delete your digital files, keep “Dark Eyes”.
Virtually everything else is improved, at least to some degree.
“Tight Connection to My Heart” is almost the same version of the song as on the album, but the horrendous synth fills haven’t been added yet. I admit, I have Dylan synth PTSD so I keep expecting to hear them in there – I actually flinch while waiting for them. I still don’t think it’s a very good song, but it’s improved. “Seeing the Real You at Last” is very similar – the vocals may even be the exact same – but the sound is cleaned up and simplified.
“I’ll Remember You” is basically just a different, very slightly shorter, take. It’s still the same basic set-up. Not really an improvement. I still like this. “Clean Cut Kid” is fairly significantly different. Dylan clears his throat in the first bar, which always makes me laugh. Still has the back-up singers and whatnot, but the lyrics are slightly different. Still, it’s mostly just piano, guitar and drums here, without all the excess crap. There’s an additional verse:
He went to church on Sunday, he was a boy scout
For his friends he would turn his pockets inside out
That second line doesn’t really scan, so it was probably better left out. Still, this is a major upgrade.
“Never Gonna Be the Same Again” is just a more spare version of the song from the album. “Trust Yourself” falls along similar lines, as is “Emotionally Yours”. The disappointment is that the version of “When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky” is not the one from Bootleg Series 3 but is just a bit more stripped down version of what’s on the album. Finally, “Something’s Burning” has the same drum bits and so suffers from a lot of the same problems.
Basically, the album isn’t that much different from the official release, but it has been stripped of almost all of its gunk. It sounds more like a Bob Dylan album than like a Bob Dylan trying to understand the 1980s album, which is how Empire Burlesque sounds to me. Basically it removes everything that I don’t like from the album. I honestly don’t think I will ever re-listen to Empire Burlesque, but Outside the Empire will go into regular rotation, because, as I said the other day, I do think that a lot of these songs, as songs, are vastly under-rated. These versions are much, much stronger.
As for the outtakes, unlike Outfidels which had literally half a dozen tracks that would have made Infidels one of the great albums of all time, this is not the case here. Two songs from his next studio album, Knocked Out Loaded, appear: “Driftin’ Too Far From Shore” and “New Danville Girl” (which will become “Brownsville Girl”, about which much much more next week). Most of the rest of pretty weak. “Waiting to Get Beat” is sort of awful and should have remained buried forever, while others are just sort of half-baked duds like “Go Away Little Boy” (rasped out here). The one song that I really enjoy is “Straight A’s in Love”, which if I had a garage band of academics I would totally cover and people would think it was great, but as a mid-career Dylan song is kind of embarrassing. I could sing this ironically as the hipster that I am….
So, pick up a bootleg of the Empire Burlesque material. So much better than the album itself.
*Visions of Johanna, a very good Bob Dylan blog, notes that there are multiple versions of the Empire Burlesque outtakes: Clean Cuts was the first, but is mastered at the wrong speed (seriously – do not get this CD). Better are Outside the Empire, Tempest Storm, Tempest Storm (a second bootleg with the same name!), Real Cuts At Last, Empire Burlesque Originals and Outtakes, Empire Burlesque Sessions, and The Naked Empire. Whew. VoJ prefers The Naked Empire – I don’t have that, so I can’t comment on its relative quality.